Sinéad: Fire in her Belly.

Yoav Ben Yosef

Like the many people who have loved Sinéad O’Connor for years, I’ve pored over dozens of articles that came out after her death, each one leading the reader at one point of course to that fateful night in ‘92 when she ripped the picture of the pope in front of a small audience who had come to have a good, uncomplicated time at 30 Rockefeller Center and an audience of millions who’d tuned in to their TVs for the same reason. Even though I quickly began to skim this part of the article--what else could I learn about the event that I hadn’t heard before?--the scene must have kept playing in my mind, because a few days after her death I was suddenly struck with the sheer frightfulness of that moment: not by the social upheaval it brought on but the subjective experience--Sinéad’s--of launching a surprise attack against a massively powerful, and, to many people, holy institution. What might it have felt like to step on the Saturday Night Live stage and sing Bob Marley’s “War” in the solitude of a cappella, no music to take cover under in case of a momentary faltering of voice, no galvanizing drums, no background musicians to offer moral support or at least a gaze of concern or care or comfort? Surrounded, it seemed, by complete darkness except for the faint light of the candles placed on a stand beside her, and knowing what she was about to do once the last note arrived, how quickened was her pulse? What was going on in her mind--then, and also in the preceding days and those that followed?

The moment has changed so much in our cultural understanding. From a largely psychologically driven act, it transitioned to a largely political one. Sinéad has turned from a crazy, unhinged, even villainous woman, not to mention an easy, delicious butt of a joke, to a fearless social-rights warrior sounding a prophetic message that most people at the time were either not interested in, or actively trying to deny. At this point in time any allusion to Sinéad’s mental state surrounding the episode is simply in reference to her bravery. And of course, this is more than warranted. Sinéad was a brave woman, unstoppably so. Looking at her beginnings, one cannot help but wonder what inner force could have possibly driven a fifteen year old living in one of the Catholic Church’s homes “for fallen women” to become in five years an international rock star with “hair shaved off thigh boots.” Sinéad explained that she landed in London at age eighteen “with fire in my belly.” Oh, if my belly could have half of that flame! And yet the word bravery seems insufficient, and beyond a certain point it is merely descriptive, not elucidating. Given all the trauma we know she had suffered and all the mental health struggles to follow, can we simply say Sinéad was acting bravely that night and leave it at that? 

Leaving it at that may seem like an important safeguard to the broader social arc described in movies like Spotlight. It is a catharsis-inducing narrative. A terrible secret is exposed. Sinéad’s turning on the flashlight into that dark closet, being mocked and banished for it, yet never apologizing or taking back her words, adds up to an emotionally effective story. We the audience want a hero. A hero inspires us in our own shift of consciousness: from ignorance to awareness, from disinterest to (well deserved)anger, in this case toward an institution masking as wholly pure (“But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,” sang Dylan, to whom Sinéad dedicates her memoir). The hero also makes us come face to face with our own deficiencies, own up to our mistakes, to the injustice we turned a blind eye to even when she was imploring us to look. Humbled and contrite, we ultimately ask her for forgiveness, a strangely satisfying, moving experience. And naturally, the best kind of hero offers a spectacle. In his New York Times review of Universal Mother, Sinéad’s first self-written album after the SNL event, Paul Watkins writes, 

Ms. O'Connor sets a tone that sometimes appears self-sacrificial. By taking on the Catholic Church, she shows a willingness,perhaps even a desire to be sacrificed. The affinity she feels with Joan of Arc (‘She is a symbol and inspiration to me’) reveals a need to be loved and accepted by the same powers she is simultaneously condemning and revering. It may appear that in the past, by so adeptly courting controversy, Ms. O'Connor gladly laid the sticks of her own funeral pyre.  

Of course, Joan of Arc saw visions of God (and adhered to the same haircut as Sinéad, for not entirely dissimilar reasons), which today would most likely mean a diagnosis in the DSM. As the trope goes, thank god(perhaps literally) she was not prescribed with some anti psychotic medication. Similarly, digging into the psychological state that led Sinéad to tear up the picture would, at least on the face of it, diminish the courage of the act, as well as muddy the cause: we’ve come so far on the issue of child abuse in the Church, we mustn’t bring into question the mental health of one of the original truth tellers. 

So why dig too deep into the psyche of the messenger at the risk of dishonoring her and harming the message? The reason goes back to the personal. At the time of her death (by natural causes according to the coroner investigation, which has relieved the specter of suicide, as Sinéad had stated a number of times on social media that she was struggling with suicidal ideation after her son Shane had taken his own life in January of 2022), I feel compelled to look at the messenger--because I feel love for her. Because I feel love for the messenger, I find myself asking why she chose to go about delivering the message the way she did. And also: can it even be seen as purely a choice, an act of free will?

Of course most of the eulogistic articles did mention Sinéad’s wrestle with personal demons. In large part that is why I kept coming back to them--not to learn new information about her, but to spend time with other people who needed to sit with the news, to grieve her loss as well as regret the pain her life was so often fraught with. We always wished her a“happy ending,” and now it seemed it was a wish that would go unanswered. Reading the articles, I joined an online hodgepodge crowd of people who all shared this strange, slightly embarrassing experience of losing someone whom you’d never met, but nevertheless let into your heart (in my case, over many, many evenings of my teen years while re-watching the same two VHS tapes of her jumping on stage--these were her younger days--my mother sitting next to me, enjoying my delight, learning herself to love Sinéad, mostly because she washer son’s favorite). It was a relief to see that Sinéad was not forgotten, as the declining record sales and smaller performance venues might have indicated. Sifting only through a pile of perfunctory obituaries and an occasional list of“five best songs” focusing on her first two albums would have been isolating. But it is in those same articles that I find a certain obtuseness about that moment on SNL. Somehow it is seen as separate from the mental health narrative, unrelated. It’s become a cause celebre’, even more important than anything she’d ever sung, except perhaps for Nothing Compares, which she did not write and is, in my opinion (trigger alert) far from her best song. The temptation to simply tout her for her heroism--the way veterans often are with little heed to the suffering they endure long after coming back from war--feels wrong. When I reluctantly watch the SNL clip, alongside admiration and pride (I am, among other thousands of people, her number one fan) what I feel is profound sadness for this young person who is in so much pain, so distressed, holding so much anger that she does not know what to do with it until she tears herself apart for everyone to see. I feel grief.

We are not taking anything away from her spirit, insight, creativity or integrity if we also allow ourselves to see a tragic aspect in the event. The traumatized mind is said to be splintered: clarity and disorientation, poise and volatility, adult and child all co-exist. Acknowledging one side does not negate the other. Allowing for the possibility that in addition to being courageous, Sinéad’s decision was tied in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (with which she would be diagnosed many years later, along with Borderline Personality disorder), recognizing the confusion that’s mixed with the unwavering resolve means, I believe, simply paying attention. Nor does it undermine the cause, quite the opposite. If we nervously fix our attention on the heroism alone, we miss an important opportunity to learn about the effects of abuse, to come face to face with the experience of someone living with wounds that never seem to scab, which is not pretty. It means simplifying the story because some aspects of it are hard to watch. It is very uncomfortable to scrutinize the actions of someone who was subjected to trauma, but an honest look is the only way to understand them.  

Is it paternalistic to imagine a conversation with twenty five year old Sinéad who confided, it seems, in no one about her intention? Anyone about to create such a disruption, wouldn’t you want them to consult with someone, if for no other reason than to get support, a landing ear? Someone to ask if this is the best way to make the issue known. Could there have been other ways of raising awareness about the issue, ones that wouldn’t have resulted in a shattering backlash that would be almost impossible for any person to absorb, let alone a trauma survivor who hasn’t yet processed the past? Can you imagine what a discussion with a friend or a therapist might have looked like prior to making the decision? The Time’s Bellinda Lascombee tells that in her youth being a Sinéad fan “sometimes felt like having a sister with no filter who asked the right questions but the wrong way.” Lascombee did imagine speaking to Sinéad after some of the provocative instances: “more timid souls, such as mine, often wished we could take her aside and whisper ‘not the venue!’” Sinéad’s actual sister was presumably back in Ireland at the time, and no interview indicates that she’d discussed the decision with her or anyone else. We know of course that the SNL production was not consulted for obvious reasons, but as it seems, not one soul was aware of her intention, no friend, manager, band member. There is an eerie sense of isolation in the days prior to the performance as recounted in her memoir. She describes spending her days anonymously in a juice bar, a hang out of West Indian Rastafari men who took her in, educated her in scripture, but had little sense of who she was, at first even mistaking her for a boy due to the bald head. They saw her as a stray kitten, she says.

Sinéad herself was never sexually molested by a clergyman, but she saw a direct line from the mind control of the Church in England to the abuse she had suffered by the hands of her mother. She described her childhood home as barbarically violent. Her father had left, offering the children the choice to come with him. Out of guilt, Sinéad and one brother chose to stay with a mother who would lay her naked on the floor and stump on her womb. The way trauma works is that it splits the victim’s mind, freezing one part (generally residing in the right side of the brain) in the time of the abuse, when the events were experienced on an emotional and sensorial level: sights, smells, sounds and touch are dominant. Analysis has no role when the body is in danger, and when the abused is a child, there is of course little to no analytical capacity to begin with. The other part of the brain (the left) develops and matures over the years,acquiring the use of words to think in a rational manner, act judiciously, and discern the present from the past. It knows that “right now I am safe and don’t need to be on constant alert,” or that “I am not bad because my mother hit me.” However, when certain triggers, often invisible to anyone but the survivor,suggesting danger occur, the left brain again shuts down and the traumatic event comes rushing in, flooding the consciousness, which thereupon experiences the present situation with the same intensity that it did in the past. Once it comes out of its paralysis, the left brain can only despair over the actions taken, recognizing their incongruity with the provocation. Some people may erupt in rage (not the right venue). Others may freeze. Many would experience both on different occasions--their reaction no more predictable to them than anyone else. You never knew what Sinéad you’re going to get on any given interview, which seemed to put many interviewers on edge. The only thing you did know is that she would come as herself, a self missing a few layers of skin, unable to hide even if it wanted to. A former manager of hers, Simon Napier-Bell, recalled: “She could be sitting with you in the most gentle, nice way, having afternoon tea, and someone could say something and she would go into a fury.” Sinéad once described these responses as not necessarily unwarranted, but coming out with the volume too high. 

Trauma research has progressed a lot over the course of the past two decades or so. There are different therapeutic approaches, but most accept that healing involves integration of these two parts of the mind. The adult brain goes back to the past to find the “stranded child,” listen to her needs and begin the work of repair. You can see from the language that this is not merely a rational process. It needs to unfold in away that would have meaning to a child, and so words of affirmation and sound reasoning, though important, are not sufficient. The senses and the imagination need to get involved. Sometimes people enact scenes in their minds that have been waiting years to play out. Often these might include the unleashing of anger, even retaliation and revenge. This, however, must happen in the safe space of the therapy office, with the therapist always on guard that the client is not psychologically overstretched. As in physical therapy, there is a fine line between rehabilitation and re injuring. The danger is that the client may return to the scene only to be re-victimized. 

“My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope,” she wrote in her memoir. “It represented lies and liars and abuse. The type of people who kept these things were devils like my mother. I never knew when or where or how I would destroy it, but destroy it I would when the right moment came.” The when, where (the venue) and the how she ended up finding do seem to be in keeping with a child’s fantasy: waging war with the whole world as your witness, in fact, against a large and powerful part of the world. But, of course, a war between a child and the world is guaranteed to be brutal, especially because what the child actually yearns for is to be loved. The degree of his rage is the measure of this yearning. Receiving the opposite--anger and contempt--is therefore all the more devastating. I should clarify that I am not making a case for or against the act of ripping up the picture per se. Shocking the public in a non-violent way can effectively disrupt an awful status quo (e.g. covering the house of a senator with a giant condom). My point here, though, is that where the decision is coming from makes an important difference. Is it coming from a place of strength or from confusion? Is it a thought-through choice to fire the opening shot of a revolution or is it a cry for help? Is it all of those?

Sinéad herself has said many different things in the immediate aftermath of the SNL performance and over the years. She never backed out from the message, never wavered in her views about the Church. But about the effects this controversy had on her personally she wasn’t as conclusive. At times she said that, contrary to popular opinion, tearing the picture did the opposite of derail her career. In fact, it “rerailed” her career. “Nothing Compares” put her on a path towards a Madonna-like stardom; the Pope incident plunged her back to the independence of a protest singer who performs in order to make a living with integrity: “I’m not a pop star. I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes every now and then.” Other times, however, we hear of a quite devastating fallout. In a New York Times article from 2021 she reported having very little memory from her life in the period following the performance. From the article: “‘It was a very lonesome, lonesome 10 years,’ O’Connor said. ‘I really trust the subconscious,’she added. ‘If it doesn’t want you to remember something, there’s a very good reason for that.’” Decades earlier, though, in the mid-nineties, two years after the SNL incident, when promoting her album Universal Mother in an interview for Q Magazine, she did remember having tried to kill herself. 

If waging war destabilized her life, singing on stage was reliably healing. Art has that power, and people who are gifted with more than their share of aptitude for it arguably have more to work with. In their hands the senseless, the destructive, the unbearable metabolizes into something that touches the heart--theirs and the audience’s. “I want to make something beautiful/ for you and from you,” she sings, obviously not to anything human (or not only), in the album Theology. It is true that not all artists see their craft as a way to work through their “issues,” but Sinéad did: “There was no therapy when I was growing up, so the reason I got into music was therapy.” And:

Everybody in music has a story in terms of their upbringing, or where they came from or what they went through... You know there is something they need to get off their chest,and perhaps we all need a bit of love and affection that we didn’t get anywhere else, but we get by making music. 

“Red Football” comes to mind as an example of a “therapy song”--a reductive term, I realize. It takes the listener through the experience of coming close to losing one’s humanity as a result of repeated abuse. “I’m not no animal/ Though I am to you/ I’m not no crocodile/ Like the one in Dublin zoo,” Sinéad sings (apparently there was such a crocodile at the Dublin Zoo of her childhood, and people did indeed throw coins at him as described in the song). Her voice is quiet, but its vibration betrays a dangerous, barely contained threat: it would not be quiet for long, soon it would boil. With her wordsmith’s nimbleness, she illustrates how, when pushed to the limit, a person can transform in an instant into something unrecognizable to themselves and others: “I’m not no animal in the zoo/ This animal will jump up and eat you.” One second she is not an animal, the next she’s in the act of devouring, well, “you.” Given the use of the second person, the listener may reasonably wonder about his role in this dialogue--audience, speaker or addressee, victim or perpetrator. The line is still sung quietly, but her voice continues to gather this pent-up energy, until finally, making good on her threat, she charges. With the drums beating faster and faster, she lunges into a blood curdling, ecstasy-inducing half a minute of lalala, a non-verbal sound rising from somewhere that is neither human nor animal, something possessed, demonic (in the song “Troy” she uses the metaphor of the Phoenix from the flame). The awesome turmoil stops you in your tracks. Sinead’s voice is apparently overdubbed multiple times, so that now there are many of her, each with “her” own volume and tone and attitude,some more threatening, others more mocking or gleeful, but all fearless--having been pushed beyond fear, beyond humanity. There is a dizzying, claustrophobic effect here. It is easy to imagine being closed in on by these personas as they spin around you, making their unintelligible pronouncements: lallalalalalaLALAlalalaLALAlala. On the other hand, you’re being pulled into the song, merged with the singer’s experience of finding power through her art. You give in to the ecstasy of a victim turned demon. It is thrilling. Still, by the end of the track, the silence offers a deep relief--thank god the assault is over, no matter which side you were on. And in a striking contrast, the next song is a quiet, even demure, version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” This variance in tone and attitude is common in Sinead’s music, often happening literally within a single breath. She could start one line with a howl and finish with a whisper--and what are those two if not either side of the same aching soul? 

It was also in song where regrets, never mentioned in interviews, came out. Sinéad referred to herself as a protest singer, but her music is more interesting than that. Self-reflective, sometimes self-questioning, even remorseful, many of the songs did not so much have a message, but traced a personal experience that’s filled with ambivalence. There is “The Lamb’s Book of Life”, from 2000: “Words can’t express how sorry I am/ If I ever caused pain to anybody/ I just hope that you can show compassion/ And love me enough to just please listen.” “Very Far From Home” contains what is to me her most devastating lyric: “Let me create something other than trouble.” (For full effect you probably need to hear it.) And more recently: “Take me to church/ I’ve done so many bad things, it hurts,” leaving us to wonder whether this is or is not an allusion to that most famous “bad” thing she’d done back in ‘92. But lest we think it an unqualified mia culpa, she makes sure we know not to take her back to the church of her childhood, not to “the ones that hurt/ ‘cause that ain’t the truth.”

Ultimately, while I have always been inspired by her social and political commentary, Sinéad’s music had a much more profound impact on my heart. There was an enormous cavity in her, which is easily identifiable to any human who has ever experienced despair (I’m raising my hand). I think it is fair to say that with little exception her music came from this absence, each song another call to the one source powerful and caring enough to fill it. She called it by different names: Jah, God, Allah, “healing room inside me,” Church. Off stage, she found her way to it, then lost it, and found it again, many times over. (Whenever I’d read any news about her my urge would be to cover my eyes and peek through a small crack between two fingers: Was she doing well? Was she flailing?) Her music was probably a chronicle (with artistic license) of this checkered journey. There were songs in which she seemed to fully inhabit the divine, with its boundless compassion. We who loved her came back to them as often as we needed solace. She told us,

This is to mother you
To comfort you and get you through
Through when your nights are lonely
Through when your dreams are only blue
This is to mother you....
For when you need me I will do
What your own mother didn’t do
Which is to mother you.

A different, perhaps fainter kind of comfort comes from the songs that were likely composed outside of that “church,” whether she is knocking on its doors, asking for shelter, or has altogether lost her place in relation to it. It seems that even in times of banishment and with little hope of ever coming back, Sinéad with a mic in her hand could make something beautiful. (Again, “So Far From Home.”) Maybe this is true only for those with few options, but sometimes singing about the loss of the divine is the divine. The plea is so lyrical that the divine can’t help but furtively pull up a chair and listen to the performance right in the midst of the crowd who dream of it.   

Interestingly, showing her teeth on SNL led Sinéad to receive a small measure of the love she craved--that we all crave--the kind of love that tolerates rage, embraces us all the more tightly for trying to push it away. The series of events can seem entirely coincidental, but trauma has its own circuitous, mysterious ways. Two weeks after SNL, she comes face to face with a huge live audience at a Dylan tribute concert, ready to sing “I Believe in You,” a song from Dylan’s born-again period. The lyrics are more relevant to Sinéad than they could have been to Dylan, certainly at that point: “They show me to the door/ they say don’t come back no more/ ‘cause I don’t be like they like me to... But I don’t feel alone/ ‘cause I believe in you.” Famously, she doesn’t get to sing it. The crowd boos unyieldingly (though some reportedly cheer), ironically acting out exactly what the song describes. The musicians urge her to start singing, but the arrangement is too quiet to be heard over the roar; it was meant to be sung almost in a whisper, she writes in her memoir. I am unable to capture in words the way she looks standing there pelted by the cries. Her face seems frozen, stricken. I am reminded of “The Scream,” the moment before the figure opens his mouth to be captured by the painter. Kris Kristofferson comes over to tell her in a stage-whisper not to “let these bastards get you down.” “I’m not down,” she answers. The denial is not convincing, therefore heartbreaking. And then she does open her mouth. Having torn off her earphone, she once again hurtles Bob Marley’s “War” as she did on SNL, with the same change of the lyrics to include the mention of child abuse. Whatever comes out of her mouth, it is not singing. Her face and neck and shoulders and chest contort with the effort. At first the ferocity is intimidating, off-putting, but on second look you see there is nothing dangerous about it. It is the anger of a deeply wounded child, regularly humiliated and bullied by their own parents, trapped in the impossible position of dependence on the love of a violent person. To him or her the entire world can seem like the bully. Turning back to get off the stage, Sinéad is met once again by Kristofferson (who would become a life-long friend). Now not using his words, he offers her what she desperately needs: a hug. This time Sinéad does not resist. She bursts out crying, leaning her head against his chest. 

Yoav Ben Yosef

Yoav Ben Yosef is a psychotherapist practicing in Brooklyn, NY. He holds an M.F.A in creative writing From L.I.U. In 2010, he won NPR's 3-Minute Fiction contest. He has been a fan of Sinéad O'Connor since the age of sixteen.

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